Profile pages and other musings

Posted on May 27th, 2011

After putting off updating my profile pages on various sites for a while (apparently almost 5 years), I think I’m now caught back up.  It’s so much easier to point to my about page on this site.

For my worst transgression, here’s my former Facebook profile with comments:

Okay, in order, personal, work, school, and play, a quick summary (well, for as busy as I am, this is short) for those just tuning in….

Brenda and I are still together, recently celebrating our 9th anniversary!  Brenda’s finishing up school at GVSU, pursuing a degree to allow her to teach elementary school.  We’ll be getting married next May, and Brenda’s getting started on all the wedding plan “stuff” now.

Whoops, Brenda and I got married over three years ago.  We’re about to have our first kid.  Sorry, dear!

No surprise to those who grew up with me, I’m currently a software engineer at IBM in Rochester, MN.  I work on all kinds of interesting projects (well, interesting to geeks, anyway), most of which I can’t go into detail about.  I’ve recently become involved in the architecture of some new systems that, again, I can’t really talk about.  Ah, confidentiality agreements…a wonderful thing.

Mostly still true. The systems I referred to ultimately ended up being used to power Watson (seen on Jeopardy). I was not directly involved in any of the Watson work, but it was cool to see that hardware I helped develop (with hundreds of others) was used in such a fascinating way.

I should be able to talk about my current projects in another three years or so. 🙂

On to something I can talk about in a bit more detail.  To get kids excited about engineering in general and computer science in particular, I am currently co-leading an IBM-sponsored LEGO Education Outreach project in southeastern Minnesota and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  This is our second year.  We have sixteen schools and over two hundred fifty students involved in the project this year, with a half dozen more schools clamoring to get in the program for next year.

What do we do in this LEGO Education Outreach program?  We teach students how to program robots to solve various tasks, using light sensors to detect changes in its environment, touch sensors to detect obstacles, sound sensors to react to the noise in the environment, and ultrasound sensors to detect how far away things are.  The kids who have participated are excited beyond words, literally begging their teachers to allow them to work with the robots more.  Much of my time outside of work is spent  coordinating this program (along with the help of several other key members of the core team).

Again, mostly still true. The numbers have changed (last year we had 26 schools and over 400 students), and the activities have evolved to more complex projects. To make time for our soon-to-be-born baby, I’m stepping down as the official leader this year, and Jim Lembke is taking up the reins. I still plan to remain involved, but on a much less-vital basis.

I also volunteer once a week at the local library, teaching students who speak English as a foreign language various subjects, from addition to calculus, biology to physics, geography to sociology, and English to Spanish. (I think that covers the broad range).

This is no longer true. I stopped this volunteer work while I studied for my Master’s Degree in Software Engineering, and have not yet restarted.

Instead, I spend more time leading the local writing group and writing my own stories. I’ve also really ramped up my freelance editing efforts. This keeps me more than busy enough, as my wife will no doubt agree.

When I do have time to “play,” I’m usually at the <a href=””>Martial Arts Fitness Center</a>.

This also is no longer true. While I enjoyed (and still enjoy) martial arts, I no longer actively participate and/or teach on a regular basis. I do, however, often use my skills against the neighbor’s kids (all around age 5) as they keep trying to take me down. When they get a little older, I’m going to be in real trouble if they learn from my techniques. Hopefully my soon-to-be born son will help protect me!

That’s my update. So glad I took the time to point people to the about page I actually keep up to date.

Hope you enjoyed my trip down memory lane!

Feeling the Christmas Spirit

Posted on December 5th, 2010

This year, I’ve felt more in the Christmas spirit than I have in a long time. It might be because my wife and I are expecting a baby in six short months.  It might be because my neighbors have young ones who are so excited by the prospect of having Santa visit their homes.

And it might be because my heart’s grown three sizes this year.

Whatever the cause, I’ve been watching Christmas movies almost non-stop this weekend as my wife and I transform our home into a Christmas wonderland.  We have lights and decorations on the tree, stockings hung on the entertainment center (no fireplace at our house), and a giant inflatable snowman floating in our snow-covered lawn.

Over the weekend, a nearby small town had a “Olde-fashioned Days of Christmas” celebration, where we saw penguins, reindeer, and the Grinch.  Our neighbors (as close as family), my wife and I all traveled across time and space to this land of fantasy.  The children shrieked with laughter and delight at the animals and some familiar friends, like Elmo, Grover, the Grinch, and of course, Santa and Mrs. Clause.

At one point, we were even approached by the crabby old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who spat, “Bah Humbug!” at us as we passed by his house.  Our Christmas spirit was strong, however, and we fended him off with a joyous round of “Jingle Bells”.

We then came home and enjoyed a meal with our neighbors, putting A Muppet Family Christmas on our projector for the kids.  Watching the kids dancing around with the songs (in full disclosure: I was dancing with them too) made me look forward to a couple years down the road, when my own child will be able to do the same.

A friend, in good nature, commented to me the other day that this will be the last Christmas my wife and I will be able to spend alone. There was no malice intended; indeed, he was trying to help us appreciate our time together.

“I don’t see this as the last Christmas Brenda and I get to spend together,” I replied.  “I see this as the first Christmas where we get to look forward to sharing our holidays with our child.”

Perhaps that’s the real difference for how I feel this Christmas season.  Whatever the cause, I hope you’re enjoying the holidays as much as I am!

Girl Scouts + Engineering = Good Mix — Part 1

Posted on June 12th, 2010

The last couple of weeks have been busy, so I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like.  However, yesterday’s events were just too awesome not to immediately record.

A few months ago, Audrey Tensen, a long-time friend of mine, contacted me and told me the Girl Scout troop she helped lead was going to be coming to Minnesota.  She  asked if I would be willing to talk with the young ladies in the group to help them understand what engineering was and to show them what was possible for people from a small town like Ravenna.

We started out the day bright and early (well, actually, rainy and early), with the girls arriving at IBM around 9am.  I unfortunately didn’t take any pictures in the morning, but hopefully I’ll be able to get some and insert them here later.

After a quick introduction, I led them through the “magic” of engineering.  I compared being an engineer to movies like Twilight, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings.  I think that one of the reasons we find these movies so fascinating is that the characters in these stories see things that we can’t see in the “real world”.  Like these characters, engineers go through life seeing things that other people don’t.

Most people, when looking at a building, for example, see a beautiful structure. An engineer sees the men who designed the building to hold its own weight, those who laid the foundation, and the men who painstakingly lifted every beam or placed every brick.  An engineer also notices the small details, like the way a floor is designed to keep people safe or how an instrument works.

Engineers are different. The best engineers combine skill with creativity to come up with new, interesting solutions.  We see the world in fresh new ways–not just in how it is, or how something was built, but also in new possibilities.

Once I finished my message about how engineers are different, I started describing robots and the engineering that goes into them.  I introduced the instantly recognizable Tickle-Me-Elmo, which was a delight for both the leaders and the Girl Scouts.

As an aside, it’s also a delight for me to show something that brings joy to others.

With Elmo, I pointed out the simple things in his design that combined to make an interactive toy.  Elmo is comprised of:

  • a computer – the central unit that tells Elmo his current state (how many times he’s been tickled, whether he’s standing up or laying down, etc) and controls his movements
  • two motors – one to control his arm, and one to control his legs
  • an accelerometer – which tells him his orientation in the world so he knows when he needs to stand up
  • several touch sensors – each of which tells the embedded computer whether Elmo is being tickled.

We also talked about the way his materials were engineered — soft furry coat, making sure that he can stand up to rough handling, a nose that would be hard to bite off, eyes too big to fit in a child’s mouth, etc.  Every detail was carefully designed to make Elmo a fun interactive toy.

I then introduced them to R2-D2, a droid I’ve owned for over two years.  R2-D2 is much more advanced than Elmo.  In addition to the features Elmo has, R2-D2 can also respond to voice commands, use an infrared sensor to find someone, and also tell someone “No”.  The ladies seemed fascinated by the possibility of controlling something by simply using a voice command.

Toni Adafin, a friend of mine who I’ve grown to know through our countless volunteer efforts, arrived just as I was wrapping up my discussion of R2-D2.  I’d asked for just half an hour of her time, and she graciously provided over an hour. She talked about her life from where she grew up in Louisiana, and how she got to IBM.

One of her funny stories included talking about her first winter here:  how she had no idea how to get  through all the snow we receive here in Minnesota.  In Louisiana, the entire town would shut down for the day when they got snow — but the snow would likely be gone after a day.

That doesn’t happen in Minnesota.

The most interesting aspect of Toni’s talk was how little she thought about race and gender as she went through college and worked at IBM.  It wasn’t until much later, she said, that she started to think of it as a problem.  However, knowing Toni, this doesn’t surprise me — Toni’s too forward looking and positive to get caught up in thoughts of the world being against her.

Both the Girl Scouts and the leaders seemed very interested in talking with women engineers — in their experience, it sounds like successful women engineers are hard to come by, so they were excited by the opportunity to talk with Toni.

Once Toni finished speaking (her prepared talk was about 30 minutes), we had a half hour or so of questions and answers.  She was also kind enough to provide some Fruit Rollups and Gushers for everyone to enjoy.

After a short break, we then took a quick tour of the IBM plant.  I showed them some of the history of computing:  ranging from abacuses to speedy calculators (a large version of a slide rule), as well as IBM devices from the early 20th century.

I also showed them the first portable MRI machine that IBM created in conjunction with Mayo.  This was an awesome invention.

Strangely enough, the device that got the most attention was actually a punch clock, used to keep track of the hours someone worked at their job.  I had to feel a bit old when I realized I’d used one when I was the same age as the Girl Scouts in attendance, as I worked at Clark’s Blueberry Farm in Ravenna one summer.  It’s amazing sometimes to think of how far I’ve come — from picking blueberries to a engineering software and writing part-time.

All of the young ladies were amazed at how far technology has progressed, as well as the thought that people actually used some of these systems.  Some of them are now obsolete, while others still have some uses today.  A version of the punch clock, for example, is still used (as far as I’m aware) at many manufacturing plants, stores, and farms today.

I also showed off some of IBM’s history in Rochester — how 50 years ago, the land where IBM now stands was merely a corn field.  Today, we have houses, stores, and strip malls.  Yesterday’s rural landscapes have transformed into a booming city — amazing in some ways, though this certainly comes at a cost to wildlife.  However, Rochester does seem to do an exceptional job at maintaining nature as well as providing economic opportunities.

Once we finished the tour, it was off to the Plummer Building to explore the bell tower.  This was an awesome opportunity–I’d never done anything like it.

However, this blog post seems long enough, though I’ve only covered the first two hours.  Part 2 (talking more about the bell tower, race exhibit, and the Girl Scouts programming robots) to come soon!

A Minnesota Campfire

Posted on May 14th, 2010

Had a great party last Saturday, but it’s been a busy week, so I’ve been slow to get this up.  There were so many people who came that I dare not try to list everyone here…I’d be certain to forget someone!

Since it was cold and rainy, we had the party inside rather than out — but there still seemed to be enough room for everyone.  We did have to expand to the garage and downstairs, but everyone managed to fit without too much difficulty.

Far be it from a bunch of engineers to let a little rain and cold stop us from roasting some marshmallows!

A Minnesota Campfire

When it’s not safe to burn logs indoors, just use an electric heater!  When properly used, there are no safety hazards.  (Disclaimer:  roasting marshmallows is not a proper use for a space heater).

Along with brainstorming ideas for self-roasting marshmallows, we all had fun playing Rock Band, Air Hockey, and just simply eating and talking.

Megan and the Rock Band

Megan and the Rock Band

Our caterers (a.k.a. my parents, sisters, and lovely wife) provided a filling and tasty meal.  Brenda and I shall not go hungry for a very long time.

Completely unrelated – does anyone want some tacos or enchiladas?

Thanks to everyone who was able to come help me celebrate the completion of my Master’s degree.  I had a great time!